Whether you know it or not, it's safe to say that Martin Whiteley has had a hand in shaping downhill racing as we know it today. From competitor to team manager to athlete agent, Martin knows mountain biking from the inside out, through experience and hard work. He took time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions about the past, present and future of our sport. Read on and get inspired.
You've been in the game for quite a while, can you give us a quick rundown of your cycling career?

1985 to 1995 - CEO of Cycling Australia
1988 - Formed Australian Mountain Bike Association, started National Series in 1990.
1990 - 1994 - Team Manager of National MTB team to World Champs
1989 - 1995 - Member of the UCI MTB Commission, writing the rules etc.
1996 - 2000 - Worked for UCI, originally as MTB Coordinator, then later as Off-road Manager overseeing MTB, BMX, Cyclo-Cross and Trials
1993 to 2000 - Technical Delegate for more than 100 World Cups, 6 World Champs and Sydney Olympics
2001 - 2003 - Team Owner, Global Racing
2004 - 2007 - Team Director, Team G-Cross Honda
2009 to now - Team Owner, Trek World Racing
2005, 2010 and 2012 - Team Owner, 23 Degrees Racing Team
2000 - Started 23 Degrees Sports Management. I've been lucky to manage and mentor many top athletes, more than 30, including Greg Minnaar, Cadel Evans, The Athertons, Cam Zink, Kyle Strait, Sam Blenkinsop, Matti Lehikoinen, Brendan Fairclough and more recently Brook MacDonald.
Designer of a number of important tracks including Nevegal DH, Sydney Olympic XC and Athens Olympic XC.
Martin says, "I started racing road in 1980, racing at national level, then raced MTB XC in late 80's, early 90's, and DH National Series on this bike in 1994/95."Throughout your time in mountain biking, what time period do you consider the "heyday" of the sport?
It's hard to really talk about a heyday as it implies we are in decline right now when I actually think the fans base is stronger than ever for DH....it all depends how you measure it. But most would cite the mega salaries and live TV of the Grundig era, mostly around 1994 to 1998, as the time when the sport looked indestructible. In reality many bike companies were paying forward on their projection of growth for MTB product, and a lot of those companies got it wrong. They overpaid salaries and bought ridiculous big rigs, but it was an exciting time for those that benefited from the whole scene.

With downhill racing in particular, it seems that there are signficant financial shifts by companies offering team support and development every few years...like companies are fully behind DH one year, then gone the next. Why do you think that is?
It's not just one thing, I believe if you dig deeper into each case, you will find a different story. 5 years ago, the interest shown in World Cup DH racing by companies like Trek, Giant, Lapierre, Specialized and to some degree Scott, were not as big as it is today. The scene was dominated by specialist companies like Intense, Orange, Yeti, and now non-existent in DH, Cannondale. Teams come and go, and that has always been the case. Perhaps it's because there is a limit to how many people can grab their justifiable share of the limelight. The media landscape is changing though. Teams that have less success on World Cup podiums can be more creative with their media, both social and regular, to gain the exposure they need.

Greg Minnaar, Durango 2001. Greg was a rising star and part of Martin's talent-filled Global Racing team.You were in the game when a rider making a six figure salary was not uncommon, then it seemed the money dried up. How have you weathered the ups and downs of support throughout the years?
There are still a good number of 6 figure salaries getting paid, the difference though is that the paying of riders doesn't go as deep. By that I mean it was possible for riders in the top 40-50 in the world to expect a pay check 10 years ago, not so now. Maybe top 20-25 in men now, much less in women. It's harder to get mainstream sponsors to support teams these days mainly because most of those sponsors still require TV exposure. Internet broadcasting is fine, but it needs to be supported by mainstream TV coverage to get the bigger bucks. We're lucky that companies like Monster, Red Bull and Rockstar have filled some big gaps, and you do have others in XC like VW, JBL and Swisspower, but generally the bike industry is financing the sport.
     My company was lucky to have success from the get-go. The first team we put together, Global Racing, won major titles in its first year. An unlikely winner of the male DH title at just 19 years of age, Greg Minnaar, Missy Giove was 2nd in women's DH and we were the number 1 DH team. This gave us a solid reputation and one I have worked hard to maintain. We have built three teams from scratch, and all of them have won titles. If you have a solid reputation and you know what you're doing, people are attracted to that, so as I say, we've been fortunate from the beginning to have been successful in putting together programs that work, and therefore attracting clients that benefit from our services. But it's still a small enterprise. I don't have an office full of staff, it's a cottage industry specializing in MTB in the management world. If it were baseball, two top players would have me set for life!! 

Do the financial ups and downs of the sport seem to be leveling out?
Again, different for everyone, but in my experience yes. But it has a way to go yet where it's to be considered stable.
Martin was the man behind the infamous Honda G-Cross downhill team from 2004 through 2007. Here, Cyril Kurtz rails Big Bear in 2004, one of the first races for the new team.
Freecaster will not broadcast the 2012 World Cup and has branched out with their own series. With live World Cup webcasts no longer 100% certain, how do you decide which events are important for your teams and riders in 2012?
The live broadcasting of the World Cup is 100% certain. The UCI have had several bidding companies and from what I'm told, we as teams will be pretty excited by the new partner. For us at Trek World Racing the World Cup will always be the main focus. It has a 20+ year history that cannot be invented or imitated, and it has a prestige that all the riders recognize and respect. All of our 'secondary' events are chosen based on travel paths, budget, media and suitability for the riders.
     Freecaster, who I was proud to commentate XC for, need to maintain the MTB content for their site as it represents a very large part of their traffic, so if they're not doing the World Cup, they need to create content. As of yet, we haven't seen a complete list of confirmed venues and dates (and it's getting late, I've already booked all my flights for next year and most hotels, which I need to do so I know my budget's on track), nor have we seen a title sponsor for the series, which I would expect is needed to pay for all the goodies like 8 cameras, live broadcast etc.
     Remember, in the past, the UCI paid for the TV production for World Cups, and just gave the live feed to Freecaster. For DH1, Freecaster needs to pay or find some to pay, for the TV production and it isn't cheap. I welcome more racing opportunities for the riders and fans, but as a professional team focused on the World Cup, we need to be careful not to over-race the riders and select events that work for us, our sponsors and the budget. It's never easy making those selections, especially when you're spoiled for choice. DH1, iXS, MTB Grand Prix, Pro GRT, Maxxis etc etc. Our schedule will include a few MTB GP's in the US, as well as Sea Otter and Crankworx this year.

If the 2012 World Cup DH races were not broadcast live via the internet, do you think the series would lose credibility?
That won't happen.

Compared to 10 or 15 years ago, do you think it is more difficult for a downhiller to be successful and make a living solely from racing?
Not for the top guys, they will make a good living and be able, if injury doesn't derail them, to set themselves up nicely, which they should be able to do. The bike industry is a multi-billion force, mostly resilient to recession, and it should reward those that are out there busting it for their brands. It is tougher though for the guys not cracking the top 20 on a regular basis.
Andrew Neethling came to the states to compete in the Norba National rounds as part of Global Racing in 2003, giving him experience that is taking him to consistent top 10 finishes today.What do you think separates the consistent top 10 finishers from those who taste success once or twice in a career?
You need to operate in a comfort zone, like a success bubble. Once you get in that bubble and you maintain the factors that got you there, you won't leave in a hurry. Recognizing that you have all the tools to maintain your place in that comfort zone is key. Yes, talent is imperative, as is commitment to fitness and strength, as is your equipment and support network. But most importantly it's your mental strength. Recognizing that your results are coming from a perfect mix of those factors, is key.
     Then comes the belief and confidence, not arrogance, and you will cruise in that comfort zone and stay in the success bubble. The odd crash or mistake here or there will be dismissed as an anomaly and be forgotten about the next day as irrelevant. Focusing on the positive and being blind to distraction is key. The ones who taste success once or twice and never again, see the win as the anomaly, a great one, and celebrate its uniqueness rather than celebrate it as an arrival. But that's all I'll give away on race-craft for now! 

Is the day of a rider relying solely on talent to get to the top of the podium over?
Completely over, done and dusted years ago. Raw talent will get you noticed at the talent ID stage, perhaps as a raw junior, but then the whole package needs to form around that, and carry the rider to the top step.

Why do you think Aaron Gwin has succeeded at the World Cup level so quickly when so many U.S. downhill hopefuls before him have not?
He had elements of the comfort zone in place before he joined our team, but now he has them all. That includes support network and equipment. He's loving what he's doing and it shows. He is also extremely talented in a way I've only seen in Nicolas Vouilloz. He doesn't look as fast as some, but that clock don't lie!
Trek World Racing has proven successful with Martin at the helm and talent like Aaron Gwin smashing the competition. It's a team effort.What advice would you give an up-and-coming junior rider aiming for a World Cup career?
Race locally and nationally and focus on results, not chasing a cool helmet sponsorship. Spend time working on your skills and fitness and hope that your parents are ready to invest in your passion. It takes time to get the recognition by a top rider or team manager, but talent and hard work bring you to the top of those races.

With do-it-all bikes becoming so much more versatile and capable, do you see a future where downhill competition is over-shadowed by Enduro events?
Not overshadowed, no, but they will complement each other well. For me, the excitement of the race against the clock, televised from top of the course to the bottom, or most of it, is hard to beat! Stand in the Fort William arena on race Sunday and tell me otherwise, there is no better place to be.

Will DH ever make it into the Olympics?
Does DH need the Olympics? I got in trouble by the UCI President when I worked there for saying that XC should not and must not rely on Olympic status as a passport to long term prosperity. Relying on a 2hr race once every 4 years is not a healthy way to work on the growth of a sport. It's a good thing, but it's not the be-all-end-all when it comes to the growth of a discipline. Sure there's better National Federation support, and the TV coverage of the Olympic race can be picked up by hundreds of nations (though most don't, they only do if they have a medal chance), but I don't feel XC is twice or 3 times stronger than it was in 1995, thanks to the Olympics.
     Getting DH into the Games is not easy. Firstly it has to be understood that all Olympic Organizing Committees agree to house 10,000 athletes at the Summer Games. This is divided by all the sports. Cycling gets around 500 of those, covering Road, Track, BMX and XC, both men and women. To get a quota of DH riders into that group, you would need to eliminate riders from the existing disciplines. Now, most of your readers would happily chuck out Track or even Road, for DH, but Road is the most profitable discipline for the UCI, by miles, and Track already sacrificed many events to get BMX in there. XC is already at a bare minimum.....so, unless the IOC gives cycling more than 500 beds in the future, it will stay like this for a while yet. There have been other concerns about terrain, for example, if Amsterdam were awarded the Games, where would you host DH? But this is a much smaller issue than athlete quotas.
Finally, one last random question. Did you think the Honda team/bike situation would develop into more than it did? I still love the sound of that bike coming down the mountain.
There have been inquiries by some bike companies into the gearbox concept that Honda have patented. Purchase amounts have been discussed, but the main concern is that the frame design of the RN01 was key in integrating the Honda gearbox, and some feel that frame design is now outdated. I would love to see the gearbox technology become commonplace, it's proven and it's a huge factor in reliability, but we'll just have to wait and see if anyone has the cojones to take it on.
One last Honda shot. Minnaar, Angel Fire World Cup, 2005. Could you imagine if there was a carbon version of this bike with that gearbox? Not out-dated in this guy's opinion...bring it on!

Related:
Create New Tag
16 comments
Show More Comment(s) / Leave a Comment